Saturday, February 08, 2014

Is Climate Change "skepticism"? No, it is "motivated reasoning".

David Grimes of the Guardian makes a great point that I have personally held for many years.. I am going to post this to more than one class since I do believe that the distinction between "scepticism" and "motivated reasoning" is a fundamental one. GK

Burying your head in the sand about climate change does not qualify as scientific scepticism.
The grim findings of the IPCC last year reiterated what climatologists have long been telling us: the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and we're to blame. Despite the clear scientific consensus, a veritable brigade of self-proclaimed, underinformed armchair experts lurk on comment threads the world over, eager to pour scorn on climate science. Barrages of ad hominem attacks all too often await both the scientists working in climate research and journalists who communicate the research findings.
The nay-sayers insist loudly that they're "climate sceptics", but this is a calculated misnomer – scientific scepticism is the method of investigating whether a particular hypothesis is supported by the evidence. Climate sceptics, by contrast, persist in ignoring empirical evidence that renders their position untenable. This isn't scepticism, it's unadulterated denialism, the very antithesis of critical thought.
Were climate change denialism confined solely to the foaming comment threads of the internet it would be bad enough, but this is not the case – publications such as the Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal and other Murdoch publications give editorial support to this view. Worse still, a depressingly large number of denialists hold office around the world. Australia's Tony Abbot decreed climate change to be "a load of crap", and a sizable chunk of the US Republican Party declare it a fiction. Even in the UK, spending on climate change countermeasures has halved under the environment secretary Owen Paterson, who doubts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, despite the fact the vast majority of scientists say unequivocally that the smoking gun is in our hands.
So given the evidence is so strong against them, then why do these beliefs garner such passionate, vocal support? It's tempting to say the problem is a simple misunderstanding, because increasing average global temperature can have paradoxical and counterintuitive repercussions, such as causing extreme cold snaps. The obvious response to this misunderstanding is to elucidate the scientific details more clearly and more often.
The problem is that the well-meaning and considered approach hinges on the presupposition that the intended audience is always rational, willing to base or change its position on the balance of evidence. However, recent investigations suggests this might be a supposition too far. A study in 2011 found that conservative white males in the US were far more likely than other Americans to deny climate change. Another study found denialism in the UK was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values. A series of investigations published last year by Prof Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues – including one with the fantastic title, Nasa Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science – found that while subjects subscribing to conspiracist thought tended to reject all scientific propositions they encountered, those with strong traits of conservatism or pronounced free-market world views only tended to reject scientific findings with regulatory implications.
It should be no surprise that the voters and politicians opposed to climate change tend to be of a conservative bent, keen to support free-market ideology. This is part of a phenomenon known as motivated reasoning, where instead of evidence being evaluated critically, it is deliberately interpreted in such a way as to reaffirm a pre-existing belief, demanding impossibly stringent examination of unwelcome evidence while accepting uncritically even the flimsiest information that suits one's needs.
The great psychologist Leon Festinger observed in 1956 that "a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point." This is the essence of the problem, and sadly, Festinger's words ring true today: the conviction of humans is all too often impervious to the very evidence in front of them.
Motivated reasoning is not solely the preserve of conservatives. While nuclear power has been recognised by the IPCC as important in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, staunch and uninformed opposition to nuclear power arises often from the liberal aisle. In the furore over the Fukushima nuclear disaster (which has claimed no lives and probably never will) many environmentalists lost sight of the fact that it was a natural disaster, very possibly exacerbated by climate change, that cost thousands of lives. Instead, they've rushed to condemn nuclear power plants.
Angela Merkel's decision to cut nuclear power stations was celebrated by Green activists, but this victory was utterly pyrrhic as they were replaced by heavily polluting coal plants. Nor could it be considered a health victory, as while nuclear power kills virtually no one, 1.3 million people a year die as a result of pollution from coal-burning plants.
Greenpeace remains stubbornly opposed to even considering nuclear power, and has said it is simply too dangerous claiming a figure of over 200,000 deaths and hugely increased incidence of cancers due to the Chernobyl disaster, a statistic exposed as an utter shambles by the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry.
The health effects of Chernobyl have been well studied over 25 years by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: 28 workers died from acute radiation syndrome, and there were 15 fatal thyroid cancers in children. Those who ingested radioiodine immediately after the disaster are at elevated risk of thyroid cancer. No increase has been observed in solid cancers or birth defects.
That this toll is considerably less than people might expect does not take away from the tragedy, but highlights the fact that motivated reasoning occurs on all sides.
The problem is that a vital discussion on a scientific issue can be hijacked as a proxy for deep-seated ideological differences. Depressingly, increasing communication of science merely tends to harden existing opinion. Part of the solution may be to take into consideration the values that impede meaningful progress; there is some evidence that climate change denialists become less hostile when given options which do not obviously threaten their world view.
If the facts of the matter inspire an emotional threat reaction, perhaps this can be mitigated by framing it as something not incompatible to one's world view. A free-market advocate, for example, might respond better to an argument outlining the economic cost of climate change or the fact inaction has a higher price tag than action.
Nor is there any inherent contradiction in an environmentalist being in favour of nuclear power – George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and James Lovelock have written eloquently on the importance of nuclear power in mitigating the ravages of climate change.
If we truly wish to avoid catastrophe, we must be pragmatic and take action. Ideological differences need to take a back seat if decisive action is to be taken. When one's house is on fire, the immediate priority should be putting the flames out, not squabbling about the insurance. Let us hope we realise this before it's too late.


Nick Sollogub said...

I believe it may already be too late. Even if it is not too late than I believe that people are too set in their ways to make the change needed to in their own lifestyles in order to change the path that the world and the environment are heading. People believe what they are told or they rebel against it. It sounds simple and black and white, but once they attach themselves to that school of thought, it is rare to find someone level-headed enough to shift their position simply by appealing to their logical side. Pride is the culprit in most of these cases. As Hardin shows in the "Tragedy of the Commons" Smithean economics is exactly wrong. This is the economic belief that has fueled capitalism and our entire society. Corporations and Globalization thrive on this idea, but in the end we see poor countries stripped of their resources and left with problems like massive pollution as well as some workers readjusting their lifestyles due to having no income again. Unless I am the person who is doing the research myself I have to take somebody's word for it. So why should pride be an issue? Perhaps people feel deceived by their sources and embarrassed that they listened to an incorrect source. Or maybe they think they are smarter than everyone else. But if we really stand back and allow the human race to continually destroy the planet at this exponential rate because we are too stubborn to change our beliefs or change our way of life, than I think we deserve to have no planet and we all deserve to die.

Nick Sollogub

Leah DeEgidio said...

Just like with everything else, there is always going to be someone arguing common and accepted ideas. As far as climate change is concerned, most rational people understand the evidence and the consequences. Others, are either in denial or believe it it a complete hoax. "The conviction of humans is all too often impervious to the very evidence in front of them." I find this statement very interesting because it explains exactly what is happening now. These people aren't skeptics because if they were to do their own research, they would find that they are just in denial. I hope the number of "climate skeptics" does not increase with time because the only hope of saving this planet is understanding what we need to change and actually follow through.

Anonymous said...

It’s very interesting to note the fact that human intelligence ultimately hinders our ability to move in a more positive direction. It is why social issues take some 50 years to be resolved; people will not change their opinions even if the correct answer is staring them right in the face. It happened with racial discrimination, women’s rights, gay rights, and now environmental rights. People are so set on claiming that what we’ve been doing is the right way to do things, that even when science and studies say otherwise, no one wants to listen. The only thing that can really be effective is to educate kids of younger generations of the dangers of climate change and what we as humans have done to the environment, wait for them to grow up, and have them implement change on a larger scale.

That being said, we don’t necessarily have that kind of time. In order to get some kind of point across to these “climate skeptics” it has to relate somehow to their sense of judgment. They need a “real” reason why we need to implement policy on this issue, or else nothing is going to completely move forward. It must relate somehow to economy, to some greater good for progress in their minds, or they will not accept it (even though without the environment and the resources it provides we would not be able to have industry at all).

These people, people who don’t take the time to really assess the issues, are spreading lies to the greater community who (also) don’t do enough research to know not to believe everything that the media says. It is another issue that is ingrained into American culture; everyone automatically assumes that what the media says is correct, or what they read online is correct, when the fact of the matter is that that is not necessarily true at all.

People in America, specifically, need a wake-up call. While children are educated on this matter, people also need to realize that propaganda isn't always truthful and that a certain system, coming from either side, isn't necessarily the best system in place for the greater good. Slowly, people may realize, once the planet has run out of use maybe, that we need to change. Yet, how late is too late?

Leanna Molnar

Cynthia Romero said...

Unfortunately, I have to agree with Nick that it might be too late. I'd love to say that informing the public would start the change that we need but that is not the case. People will continue to believe what they want. They will turn the obvious evidence into their own truth. I couldn't agree more with Leon Festinger. The sad truth is that people are more selfish than ever. They pretend to care about what happens around them but don't actually make a change since it would mean change. To me, it seems so easy to live simply. For some, simple is difficult and not convenient at all. The other side of this is that people feel like one person won't make a difference and this really gets to me. If we all just change that way of thinking and turn that into positivity, we would all be making changes, even the most minimal, to help our earth. We all need to think of the bigger picture and that is not our future. It is not OUR future, it is the future of so many others, so many living beings, not just humans. We are so so small, we really need to stop being so egotistical.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the public continues to acknowledge climate change because the majority does not want to accept the blame and take the appropriate actions to correct the issue at hand. The human race is self centered and unwilling to change. Technology has made life so simple no one is willing to admit it is the root of the current environmental crisis. In order to right this the entire population must be willing to make the necessary sacrifices; driving less, reusing materials, consuming less, etc. The first step to this is admitting we are the problem, too many people are unwilling to do so and until we can change public opinion and raise awareness nothing will change.

Haylei P.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important for people to take the time to educate themselves about climate change; especially considering the fact that the information is already all out there, right in front of our faces. However, I have noticed that it is becoming much harder to differentiate between climate experts and climate skeptics, especially on the Internet these days. You really have to look at the information you’re given and look into that persons credentials or that websites funding and so on.
Also it is so easy for science skeptics to delay real factual information by spreading the idea of doubt. All it takes is for one person to spread the idea that “climate change is a hoax” and there you have it, people will start to question themselves and others and it almost creates a sort of chaos. I like to make the analogy of climate skeptics as kids in high school spreading gossip and rumors. After the rumor gets out kids will believe what they want regardless of whether or not it’s the truth, and it’s kind of the same way with people out in the real world. It’s easy for people to believe a rumor such as climate change being a hoax, because then they don’t have to change their lifestyles, they continue on as if nothing is happening. Also it doesn’t help when the idea that climate change is a hoax gets portrayed by the media because you know in the media repetition = fact, right?
The sad truth is that people are always going to believe what they want, but if we begin to educate ourselves on the matter and not just listen to what we hear on the TV or read on a non-reliable Internet source, then just maybe we could start to diminish a majority of the doubt that is still out there today.

Gina May

Anonymous said...

The idea of whether climate change is real or a "hoax" has been a problem for many years. To me it seems absolutely ridiculous for someone to actually deny that climate change is occurring with all the sold evidence that is occurring. The science is clear and our climate is changing.

I recently watched "The Inconvenient Truth," a documentary about Al Gore and his fight to make people aware that we must do something soon to stop climate change. In the documentary he talked all about "climate deniers." He explains, as does the article above, that people deny what they do not truly understand. Some people thing that making measures to stop climate change would decrease our economic growth, which as we know, is not true. He also talks about how educating people is the start to change people's minds about climate change. If we are more aware of what is going on with our planet, maybe we will have different opinions.

It is scary for me to think about the fact that people don't believe our planet is in danger and would rather sit around and continue to do as we are doing. And as others have said, we can not continue to do the same things and expect a different result. Climate change is absolutely real and will ruin our planet if we do not stop these "misunderstandings" and get to the true problem.

-Kaylee Looper

Dylan Hirsch said...

Extremely interesting article. The phycology regarding climate science denial is extremely evident, and is proof of the ideologically disagreements of environmentalist and "economist", or more loosely define "neo-liberalist". The truth is the environmental movement will change the open market based system economic system that we have established today; what will replace it is own known, but is the fear to those who hold strongly to the belief that an open based market is key to the growth and success of humanity. The opposing ideologies will synthesize into a completely different paradigm of how we view the world today; the way future humanities deal, interact, and maintain their relationship with the environment will be completely different from the vast majority of human history.

-Dylan Hirsch

Apoorva said...

Everyone in this world has their beliefs and opinions set so rigid, we can go as far as to say that they may be set in stone. Its hard to get everyone to realize what is happening to the environment and get them to adapt to the changes we might have to make to save the environment. People are in denial as to how far the climate change has gone. People are getting more selfish and greed is increasing as the economy is getting better. They are oblivious to the amount of damage and burden they are putting on the environment. They don't realize that all their consumerism is in fact affecting 'climate change' in more ways than just the buying or selling.
Most countries would be ricocheting the blames to say that is not them. It might be already too late, but there might be something we could do if people realize at some point that they could do something about it.

Apoorva Muthukumar

Melis Temelli said...

The article actually goes through the ideas on behalf of and against accepting climate change, taking a position that sees climate change as real and a real threat for the future of the world in general.Those that do not see such a change as essential or those that deny the existence of such a change are strongly criticised in the article. While it is depicted that the climate change is real, people who (try to) deny it are criticised, for ignoring the case due to political and economic reasons. Capitalists like Murdoch (and their media) take an opposition stance against climate change accordingly, while this tendency is supported by conservatives that advocate free market, most probably as a result of the fact that accepting the climate change would lead free market capitalists to make moves to limit their profit margins at the end. However, the author does not put the blame on a single political view regarding this behaviour, taking the arguments on nuclear power plans as an example. Accordingly, it is the liberals in the West that are against nuclear power plants, despite many evidences that show that these plants are less risky and more efficient compared to other energy production possibilities. I do not agree with the author about the nuclear power discussion, for there are many dimensions he does not talk about regarding wider effects of nuclear accidents and the means to take cautions in terms of saving lives or economic efficiency. But in general I agree with the points cited on the so-called denial of climate change, which is as real as a very risky future for us human beings if we continue to neglect the matter. We will be neglected by the nature at the end, consequently.

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